Dear Esther, said thechineseroom's Dan Pinchbeck, was allowing the player as much control over the narrative as possible. Speaking at a panel during GDC Europe, Pinchbeck addressed the intentional ambiguity of Dear Esther, saying that it gave players more freedom, thus making their time with the game more enjoyable. Rather than presenting the player with predetermined series of events, Dear Esther's story is filled with ambiguity and revealed randomly, leaving it to the player to interpret it. In a very real sense, they actually participate in the story's creation.
While most games lay out their stories in a clear, linear fashion – think big budget FPS and action games – Pinchbeck likens Dear Esther's story to a toy box. Instead of giving players a cohesive, linear story, thechineseroom created story blocks and lets players put them together. It's a bit like "story Minecraft," he said. "The story of Dear Esther doesn't actually particularly tell you anything. It just suggests things that could have happened, but you can do the work."
People are driven to think of events in terms of story, he said. "If something looks and feels enough like a story, people are likely to interpret the action in a storied way." As such, when creating Dear Esther, thechineseroom wasn't concerned with creating a complete, fully rounded story. "What we can try and do in games, is not tell a story, but to provide the player with the toolbox – the tools, the bricks that they need to tell the stories themselves," said Pinchbeck. "In exactly the same way that we consider things like physics sandboxes," he adds, "if you provide those units of useful, interesting stuff that players can play with, they will create an experience from it."
During the Q&A session, we asked Pinchbeck if Thechineseroom's next project, Amnesia: A Machine for Pigs will follow the same model of abstract storytelling. Unlike Dear Esther, said Pinchbeck, A Machine for Pigs exists within the constraints of a "classic horror story," so it won't follow the same model entirely. "What we're going to try and do is we're going to try and keep the lessons that we've learned in terms of not funneling the plot down, not being really explicit with the player about what's going on, using inference, using suggestion," he said. "We're trying to have any opportunities we can to keep that open" for players to do the work of piecing together the ambiguous bits, which he says are especially important in a horror game. "You pretty much can't represent anything in a horror game that's going to be more scary than what the player thinks you're going to represent, and the moment you actually show it, you've lost an awful lot of the power you've got to scare them."